Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Joni Mitchell Album (Part 3)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Night Ride Home (1991, Geffen)

A

Easily her best album since Hejira, Joni’s first album of the ‘90s finds her both dialing back the production gloss of her previous two albums in favor of a more sparse and intimate vibe – though never so stark that it makes the album sound uncommercial – and returning to less topical material. She hasn’t exactly reverted to the deeply personal and introspective lyrical content of Blue, but she has largely eschewed sociopolitical commentary around, which helps to make the album feel more timeless than Dog Eat Dog and more upbeat than Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. In many ways, Night Ride Home feels like the accessible jazz-pop of Court and Spark updated for the early ‘90s, not in the least since Joni’s also brought a fabulous set of material to the table here. Cuts like the title track, “Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free),” “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac,” and “Nothing Can Be Done” all rank among Joni’s warmest and most appealing songs in years, while the nostalgic “Come in from the Cold” – which, even in spite of its seven-and-a-half-minute running time, surprisingly never wears out its welcome – is the greatest single Joni’s crafted since “Free Man in Paris” and deservedly became Joni’s biggest hit in her native Canada in fifteen years. If you’re only going to pick up one of Joni’s post-Asylum albums, this should be the one.

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Turbulent Indigo (1994, Reprise)

A –

Only ever-so-slightly inferior to Night Ride Home, this album took home the Grammy for Pop Album of the Year and finds Joni still in near-peak form. Like Night Ride Home, it stops shy of being as essential as such early ‘70s masterpieces as Ladies of the Canyon, Blue or Court and Spark, but for a late-career album, it’s surprisingly excellent, particularly from a melodic standpoint. It’s merely the lyrics that keep the album from feeling quite as warm as Night Ride Home – not just the sheer heaviness of such topical songs as “The Magdalene Laundries,” but the mildly nasty “Not to Blame” (reportedly a jab at ex-boyfriend Jackson Browne, though Mitchell has denied this). But the David Crosby co-write “Yvette in English” is nearly as essential a late-period Joni listen as “Come in from the Cold,” and “Sunny Sunday” and “Sex Kills” are both nearly every bit as brilliant. Just as impressively, Joni turns in a knockout single for the second album in a row – this from a woman who had spent years running away from the radio success she had found with Court and Spark – with “How Do You Stop,” not only a cover of a James Brown song (it’s not as bad as it sounds; the song is actually far more suitable for Joni than it was for the Godfather of Soul) but a cover of an obscure James Brown single from the late ‘80s, at that! (The song was actually written by Dan Hartman, the former Edgar Winter Group vocalist/bassist who’d go on to solo success with such hits as “Instant Replay” and “I Can Dream about You.”) The then-red-hot Seal provides backing vocals on the cut, which seems like an odd match on paper, but the folk legend and the “Prayer for the Dying” R&B crooner actually sound quite wonderful together. Unfortunately, Joni’s discography would begin to get spotty again after this disc, so the artistic comeback wouldn’t last for very long.

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Taming the Tiger (1998, Reprise)

C +

It’s not exactly bad – no Joni album is; even the worst in the bunch are still perfectly listenable affairs – but Taming the Tiger ranks with Song to a Seagull, Mingus, and Dog Eat Dog as one of her least satisfying albums. Joni’s heavy use of a guitar synthesizer here makes the album a bit less sonically appealing than its two immediate predecessors, and the album’s noticeably less coherent musically than either Night Ride Home or Turbulent Indigo, too – opener “Harlem in Havana” is her most world-beat-oriented outing since Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, while the jarring “Lead Balloon” is arguably her hardest-rocking track since the days of Wild Things Run Fast. But, much more critically, Joni’s melodic gifts have largely failed her here, and hardly anything on here comes anywhere close to sticking in your head as easily as the highlights from the two previous albums like “Come in from the Cold” or “Yvette in English” or “How Do You Stop,” and the tracks consequently too often feel like leftovers from Turbulent Indigo. There are some minor pleasures here – namely “Man from Mars” and “Love Puts on a New Face” – but nothing on the disc really qualifies as a late-period classic, either, and it’s consequently easy to overlook this album when trying to recall her latter-day albums.  

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Both Sides Now (2000, Reprise)

B –

Like so many of her contemporaries from the ‘70s, Joni here succumbs to doing a whole disc of pop standards, something that was relatively novel when Carly Simon made Torch or Linda Ronstadt released What’s New, but by the dawn of the new millennium, it had become almost a cliché, and even Rod Stewart would spend nearly an entire decade putting out albums like this. Despite her vocal limitations, Joni actually fares better than most. Not only is she effective at creating a mood and sticking with it for the bulk of the album to create something that feels like more of an album piece than your usual standards disc, but she turns in fine interpretations of gems like “You’re My Thrill,” “Comes Love,” “Don’t Go to Strangers,” “You’ve Changed,” and “Answer Me, My Love.” “At Last” and “Stormy Weather” are both too oft-covered to really feel all that fresh at this point, but beyond those two songs, the material is mostly well-chosen. Joni also daringly has included orchestral versions of her own “Both Sides Now” and “A Case of You” here, a move that would smack of arrogance if it weren’t for the fact that the songs fit in better than they have any right to and are of such beauty in these incarnations (especially “Both Sides Now”) that they end up being even bigger highlights than any of the actual standards they accompany.  

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Travelogue (2002, Nonesuch)

C +

The exact impetus for this disc – whether it was merely made to fulfill a contract obligation or whether it was a reaction to the glowing reviews of the two originals Joni had re-recorded for Both Sides Now – is not altogether clear, but Travelogue is a double-disc set – Joni’s first since Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter – comprised entirely of orchestral re-workings of songs from her back catalog. The track selection is a bit odd, almost completely eschewing her better-known songs (though “The Circle Game” and “Woodstock” are included) in favor of obscure album cuts (most of them stemming from her post-Court and Spark outings), which renders the whole project a bit pointless for anyone but the most diehard of fans; after all, it’s hard to truly appreciate an orchestral re-arrangement of a song you’re not especially familiar with in the first place. It all sounds perfectly fine – especially “The Circle Game,” “Just Like This Town,” “Hejira,” “Otis and Marlena,” and “Love” – and none of these new versions sound particularly ill-advised, but the album doesn’t exactly feel necessary, either, and it’s hard not to simply look it as either a stopgap or another vehicle for Joni to try to draw attention to latter-day work she considers undervalued. This is a pleasant but ultimately skippable disc.

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Shine (2007, Hear)

A

After a five-year layoff, Joni unexpectedly resurfaces with her first disc of all-new original material in almost a full decade, and though it would prove to be her final album, it’s a true return to form and a much more graceful way for Joni to close out her recording career than any of the three albums that followed Turbulent Indigo, not in the least since the melodies Joni has written here are dramatically stronger than those that permeated Taming the Tiger. The disc opens with “One Week Last Summer,” a rare instrumental by Joni that proves to be one of her most stunningly pretty compositions in well over a decade and would rightfully claim the Grammy that year for Best Pop Instrumental. The hypnotic “Night of the Iguana” and the lushly-orchestrated “Strong and Wrong” are every bit as chilling, while the jazz-pop of “If,” based on the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name, hearkens back to the best moment of Hejira. The album’s only real misstep is “Big Yellow Taxi (2007),” a very unnecessary contemporized version of Joni’s breakthrough hit from Ladies of the Canyon. Otherwise, the disc feels very much like a coherent and genuinely inspired album piece, and this stands right up there with Night Ride Home and Turbulent Indigo as one of her three greatest post-‘70s albums.

Compilations:

Though there are many Joni compilations to choose from, only one of them is technically a greatest-hits package per se in the traditional sense. (The remaining packages are all either themed affairs or attempts to highlight lesser-known material.) But you can’t go wrong with 1996’s Hits. Nearly all the vital classics – including “Both Sides Now,” “The Circle Game,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “River,” “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” “Free Man in Paris,” “Help Me,” “Raised on Robbery” – are here, along with a rare non-LP rendition of her own “Urge for Going” (first made famous by Tom Rush; Joni’s own version was originally released only as the flip-side of “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”). It’s not quite a perfect disc – “A Case of You” should really have been included, and “How Do You Stop” would have been a much better late-career inclusion than “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody” – but it sure comes close. Hits does have a simultaneously-released companion disc called Misses that gathers up lesser-known songs and does include “A Case of You,” but the track selection is chosen by Joni herself, who has opted to use the package primarily to showcase her favorite cuts from her ‘80s and ‘90s work, and consequently, a lot of songs that should have been included on a package like this – not just “How Do You Stop,” but “Amelia,” “In France They Kiss on Main Street,” “Shadows and Light,” “Otis and Marlena,” “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” and “Yvette in English” – are bypassed in favor of truly obscure items like “Harry’s House/Centerpiece,” “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey,” and “The Impossible Dreamer,” so the disc ends up being a huge disappointment.  

Live Albums:

There are just two official live albums in Joni’s catalog – 1974’s Miles of Aisles and 1980’s Shadows and Light. Neither is as good or as vital as her studio work, but the former is the more essential of the two, in part because it captures her at her commercial peak (unlike the latter disc, which captures her at the nadir of her popularity, coming on the heels of the poorly-received Mingus) and in part because it also features Joni’s highest-charting rendition of “Big Yellow Taxi.” [The original studio version peaked at #67, but this version would make it to #27 and prove to be the last of Joni’s four Top 40 hits (not counting her featured-artist credit on Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone.”)]